Pandemics and precarious lives

Although it may seem like a strong statement, I believe that we are living in one of the most surreal periods since the COVID-19 outbreak began. As of Dec. 7, there have been sixty-eight million cases of COVID-19, and more than one and a half million deaths from the disease across the world, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data. In other words, millions of people who each have names and memories passed away. 

The COVID-19 is not only a global public health crisis; it also has socio-economic effects on people’s wellbeing and welfare. For example the unemployment rate in certain states in the United States increased to above twenty per cent as of June 2020. This spike, has been described as  a Second Great Depression, referring to the Great Depression 1929. Moreover, according to International Labour Organization (ILO) data, there was a 14 per cent drop in global working hours during the second quarter of 2020, which was equivalent to the loss of 400 million full-time jobs. Therefore, this is a global crisis which has depreciated people’s welfare across the world, and Turkey is no exception. 

On Aug. 31, 2020, the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) reported that the Turkish economy shrank by 9.9 percent between April and June compared to the same period last year. Moreover, TÜİK data shows that the number of employed people decreased by 975,000 people to 27.5 million in August 2020 compared to the same period the previous year. The employment rate was 43.9 percent with a 2.4 point decrease as of August 2020. As a result, tens of thousands of people have been impacted negatively by the COVID-19 crisis in Turkey. 

I have to highlight that the COVID-19 crisis and its impact does not affect all people in the same way, even though politicians and non-government organizations keep saying “we are all in this together”. This line ignores socio-economic inequalities within a society. Moreover, not all people have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. The richest of the superrich have benefited from this global crisis. Between Jan. 1, 2020, and April 10, 2020, 34 of the U.S.’ wealthiest 170 billionaires saw their wealth increase by tens of millions of dollars. While more than fifty-one million people have filed for unemployment only in the U.S. alone.

Turkey was again not exceptional in regards to this paradox. On the one hand, the number of millionaires in Turkey increased by 32,232 from March to June 2020. On the other hand, only a couple weeks ago, the Deep Poverty Network published a report on the impact of COVID-19 on people’s welfare in Istanbul. This report points out how the COVID-19 crisis and its restrictions have deepened the vulnerability of poor people in society.

Hacer Foggo, the founder of the Deep Poverty Network, declared that “the wellbeing of children has completely deteriorated. That’s why I speak loudly to point out that there are mothers who are not able to buy food for their babies; they drink water with sugar instead, day and night.” 

Who are Turkey’s most vulnerable groups?

Gypsies: Historically one of the most vulnerable groups in Turkey, Gypsies are often not seen as a part of society and are mostly discriminated against just because they have a different way of life.

Immigrant workers: Those who mostly come from thousands of kilometres away to have a better life, but they face elevated levels of risk during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Refugees: Those who are forced to flee their homeland due to war, conflict, and fear of persecution. They mostly work in low-skilled jobs in the informal economy due to different obstacles in the labour market, and they often cannot afford to buy even basic personal protective equipment to protect themselves from COVID-19.

Women: Already disadvantaged in the labour market, women are vulnerable as a result of the lack of equal opportunities at the workplace. 

Seasonal workers: People who have to move across the country as there is no decent in their homeland.

Low-skilled workers: Often with no social security and regular income, low-skilled workers  are facing a deep poverty crisis during the pandemic in Turkey. 

It is not the COVID-19 crisis that reveals poverty and income inequalities within society. Economist Thomas Piketty in his outstanding book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, indicates how income distribution inequality has increased sharply since the late 1970s. As a result, there were already people who live in vulnerable positions before the COVID-19, and this crisis has only exacerbated their condition.

As if that were not enough, municipal police officers (“zabıta” in Turkish) in Istanbul’s Esenler district mistreated an eight-year-old child labourer after destroying his street-vending stall on Nov. 30. The government needs to understand the reasons why there were many child labourers, especially during the current crisis, instead of ignoring the abuse of municipal police officers.

All children should be receiving an education; they shouldn’t be left alone at a time like this. The most urgent step that needs to be taken is providing socio-economic support to those who are suffering during the crisis. One of the main responsibilities of the social state is to provide a decent life for everyone who lives in society. In this context, the government must pay attention to the inequalities mentioned above when deciding to implement social assistance programmes. It is not a gift for governments to provide social assistance to those who are in precarious condition; it is one of their main responsibilities. Human(ity) is always first.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.